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Debt and Damnation: Islam in Dante
Ian Thomson in conversation with Alison Cornish and Federica Anichini. Click here to register “It might seem strange that a poem most emblematic of medieval Christianity, The Divine Comedy, should contain
Ian Thomson in conversation with Alison Cornish and Federica Anichini.
“It might seem strange that a poem most emblematic of medieval Christianity, The Divine Comedy, should contain so many Arabic loan-words as well as references to Islamic intellectual life. Eastern treatises on medicine, natural science and mathematics had entered the Italian peninsula by way of Muslim Spain and Sicily, and left their fingerprints on Dante Alighieri’s great 14th century work. In the face of Islam’s rapid westward expansion, however, Dante had absorbed also a fierce dislike and incomprehension of Islam. His view of Islam portrays many of the misapprehensions of a time when the West-Orient divide had widened as a consequence of the Christian wars in the Holy Land. While Dante followed the medieval Western tradition of being bitterly opposed to Islam as a religion, he acknowledged the great debt of the West towards the Arab world. Ian Thomson shows how the author of The Divine Comedy, having been exposed to the cultural Arabia of the Mediterranean, was broad-minded enough to see in Islam more than just schism, jihad or a clash between ‘Western Civilization’ and ‘Islamic Civilization.’
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About the speakers
Ian Thomson was born in London in 1961, but grew up in New York, where his father worked for a bank. His mother, a Baltic émigrée, came to England in 1947. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and in the 1980s he worked in Rome as a teacher, translator, journalist and writer. He contributes regularly to the national broadsheets and weekly magazines, among them the Observer, Times Literary Supplement and the Spectator. His first important book, Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti (1992), considered a “great and abiding classic” by the film director Jonathan Demme, was listed for the Thomas Cook Travel Award. His biography of Primo Levi, Primo Levi: A Life (2002), took 10 years to write and won the Royal Society of Literature’s W.H.Heinemann Award. In 2005 Ian Thomson returned to the West Indies to write The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica (2009). Banned in Jamaica for political reasons, the book was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book Award. Ian Thomson has translated the Sicilian crime writer and essayist Leonardo Sciascia into English, and edited Articles of Faith: The Collected Tablet Journalism of Graham Greene (2006). In addition he has contributed a short story to Kingston Noir (2012). His latest book, Dante’s Divine Comedy (2019), reflects a lifelong interest in Italy. He is currently working on a book about his mother’s birthplace in the Baltic during World War II.
Federica Anichini, Florentine by birth, has obtained a PhD in Medieval Italian Studies at New York University, in 2002. In 2009 she has published a monograph on the poetry of Guido Cavalcanti (1250?-1300), Voices of the Body. Liminal Grammar in Guido Cavalcanti ‘Rime’, about the employment of sources from natural philosophy, medicine in particular, in Cavalcanti’s work. Her publications include the essays: “Empty Womb and Full Bellies in Decameron 9.3,” in The Decameron: Ninth Day in Perspective. Volume Nine of the Lectura Boccaccii, (Toronto: Toronto University Press, forthcoming); In Dialogue with the Imageless Vision: Constructing Language in Paradiso III, in Dante and Heterodoxy (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2014); Inferno IX: Passing within City Walls and beneath the ‘velame de li versi strani’, (Mediaevalia 33 (2012) ). Her current research centers on the relationship between the urban environment and creativity, specifically on the relation of medieval Florence to its vernacular poetic tradition by focusing on one specific urban morphological feature, the city walls, meant not as a defensive device but as permeable margins.
Alison Cornish joined the Italian Studies faculty at NYU first as Visiting Professor in Fall 2017 and then as Professor in Fall 2018. She has a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley, an M.A. in Medieval Studies from Cornell University, and a Ph.D. in Italian from Stanford University. Professor Cornish’s research interests are primarily in the fields of Medieval and Renaissance Italian Literature. She is the author of Reading Dante’s Stars (Yale, 2000), Vernacular Translation in Dante’s Italy: Illiterate Literature (Cambridge, 2011) and, most recently, Introduction, Headnotes, and Notes on Dante’s Paradiso, translated by Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, 2017). She has published articles on Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, earlier Italian lyric, and Elsa Morante. Recent articles include: “Music, Justice and Violence in Paradiso 20” (Dante Studies 134 ), “Words and Blood: Suicide and the Sound of the Soul (Inferno 13)” (Speculum 91 ), “Incarnation in Venice” (The Decameron: Fourth Day in Perspective, forthcoming). The main themes of her research have been literature and science, vernacular translation, and currently the category of sound as material medium of music, language, and poetry. She is currently president for the Dante Society of America.
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